Phantom of the okra

‘Hey wena! Wenzani? Sela sela sela!” That was me bawling my heard off at 3am as I peered through my window and discovered someone reaping where he had not sown in my mother’s vegetable patch.

All hell broke loose as all the residents who live in my block in Bulawayo poured into the night in various states of undress. One old timer was hastily putting on some PJs with I LOVE MY MUMMY AND I LOVE MY DADDY emblazoned across the front, but though this caused a few snickers here and there, no one really paid attention as we all had other business on our minds: like chasing down and apprehending the vegetable thief. Please note the emphasis on “the”. This guy had actually become famous or should I say infamous in my ‘hood. His tactics and elusiveness had become gossip fodder for everyone.

Every morning instead of talking about the weather, we would ask one another who had been visited by our nightly phantom.

But first, some critical background information on the importance of having your own garden patch. In the city of Bulawayo vegetables are very expensive. A bunch of umbhida (covo veggies as they are affectionately known) costs about R2 a bunch. This bunch will have three leaves only and, if you are lucky, four.

Now an average family of six will require about five of these for every meal and that’s R10 before you consider that these veggies are as much part of our staple diet as sadza. R10 a day for your supper is a bit steep for most us. The solution is to grow your own in your backyard. And if there is any surplus, then good for you, because that means cash coming in. So you can imagine how hard people work to make sure that these gardens grow.

So a few weeks back this “phantom” appears from nowhere and one morning one observant neighbour discovers that someone has been picking veggies from their garden. And soon just about everyone is noticing this about their gardens—my mother included.

At this point I had still not noticed anything wrong myself. I mean, I would look at my mother’s garden and see a jungle of greenies in there and wonder how anyone could tell that something was missing. Needless to say I was sceptical about this whole “phantom of the garden” issue: whoever heard of a ghost liking vegetables? But then he struck three more times and we knew that this guy meant business.

Everyone was asking “ukwenzanjani?” How does he pull this off? We have neighbours who work until midnight and others who go to work as early as 4am, so what time did this guy come and how did he escape undetected? That’s when our sleepless nights began. What else could we do, except set up watches in the hope of catching our elusive friend? That was until last night anyway when I caught up with him.

I admit it wasn’t because of any genius or even vigilance on my part: it was accidental. I just happened to see an unusual object in my mother’s garden and decided hey, that’s a human being in there! Fool that I am, I decided to investigate more closely (bravely squinting out of our first-floor window) and realised that it was indeed “the phantom of the gardens”. That’s when I took a deep breath and shrieked.

I must have alarmed the whole neighbourhood—including the phantom—because the next time I looked, people were pouring out of their houses with every weapon imaginable: from knobkerries to iron bars and brooms. In all the excitement we somehow forgot about the object of our pursuit and by the time we decided to give chase the phantom had done what he does best — and disappeared.

Everyone was bitterly disappointed, but this incident did provide more fodder for discussion. A lot of us were now visualising what would have happened if we had caught the thief.

The old timers talked about the roundhouse kicks reminiscent of Walker Texas Ranger. The women folk got busy swinging whatever weapon or household gadget they were holding. Some of my neighbours expressed their disappointment, saying they felt it was my fault the thief got away. This led to a lecture on how to apprehend thieves stealthily with several movie-style tactics being described. Others, however, congratulated me for revealing that our phantom was just another ordinary, hungry and stupid citizen —

I’m kind of glad he got away because I could see the bloodthirst in the eyes of my neighbours and I have heard of people dying from mob justice and I feel pity for all vegetable thieves out there because those law-abiding citizens and crime victims are waiting and watching for you, dude.

Robson Murambiwa is a third-year marketing student at the Bulawayo Polytechnical college

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